After eight years of Republican rule in the House of Representatives, Democrats officially took over on Thursday (Jan. 3) in a swearing-in ceremony that was marked by boisterous cheers and a public outpouring of support for new speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose leadership was challenged by younger members in recent weeks.
Pelosi and the House Democrats will grapple immediately with a government shutdown that’s likely to be an ugly public power struggle against president Donald Trump, nervous stock markets that had a historically awful December, trade wars, and a US military that’s suddenly being led by an acting defense secretary with no military experience.
But the mood among House Democrats today was ebullient. Their side of the House chamber was thick with kids, women in jewel-toned jackets, and members of various hues, a marked contrast to the Republican side, which was a sea of white men in dark suits sporting red ties. New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in a pantsuit of suffragette white, snuggled a baby and waved boisterously across the room; Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, in white and a red-and-gold headscarf, bounced her daughter on her knee while a stream of men in suits appeared before her, offering congratulatory handshakes. Pelosi and California’s Ted Lieu embraced, and Rashida Tlaib’s kids dabbed on the floor.
In the prayer that opened the new session of Congress, a minister from Kansas City, Missouri, asked members to “strive to be architects of a kinder nation that is purging itself from any and all prejudices.”
After being vilified by Republicans during the midterm elections, Pelosi’s official nomination as speaker of the House got multiple standing ovations as Hakeem Jeffries of New York listed her successes, from “saving the automotive industry” to stopping the privatization of Social Security to passing health-care legislation.
“Nancy Pelosi is just getting started,” he said. Pelosi is a “loving, powerful, profound, and prophetic principled public servant,” Jeffries said. “Let me be clear, House Democrats are down with NDP,” he said, referencing a 1991 Naughty by Nature song and Pelosi’s full name (Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi).
As they stood to announce for speaker of the House, some Democrats sang her praises. Steve Cohen from Tennessee called her the “woman who will truly make America great again.” Texas’s Veronica Escobar referred to her as Nancy “no wall” Pelosi. “For the future generations of women who will lead this country, Nancy Pelosi,” said California’s Katie Hill, casting her voice vote.
“Standing on the shoulders of the women who marched 100 years ago for me to have the right to vote, I cast my vote for Nancy Pelosi,” said Michigan’s Brenda Lawrence. “Because I have faith in her values and what she stands for, Nancy Pelosi” said Barbara Lee from California.
Ultimately, 15 Democrats didn’t support Pelosi, but she received 220 votes of the 218 she needed to become speaker.
Beforehand, Seth Moulton, the Massachusetts representative who led the failed bid to unseat Pelosi, predicted a new era of cooperation. “There’s a time to vote for captain, and a time to play on the same team,” he said. America has a “reckless commander-in-chief,” Moulton said. Among other things, the new House is going to re-examine the authorization of presidential use of military force.
Ahead of the swearing-in ceremony, the line to enter the Longworth Office Building, where many House representatives have their offices, stretched out the door and down the stairs, swollen with teen boys in their best navy blazers and khakis, women in a “Moms Demand” t-shirts, and a guy with a fire department t-shirt and a “Vote BEN” baseball hat.
Barbara Zucker, a psychotherapist from Manhattan, was invited by New York Democrat Antonio Delgado after canvassing heavily for him in upstate New York’s 19th district. Delgado flipped the Republican seat, but not before the Harvard-educated lawyer was attacked in GOP ads for having recorded a rap album a decade ago.
They knocked on hundreds of doors, in horrible weather, Zucker said. “We never stopped. We couldn’t go to the bathroom anywhere, we had to go in the woods,” she said. While Zucker said she’d done some canvassing before, this year was different. Why? ”Isn’t it obvious?” Zucker said. “It is unacceptable what’s happening to the country today” she said.
Some Republicans in the House said they were quietly optimistic. “We’re hoping to have the chance to govern with Democrats,” said a senior Congressional aide for one powerful Republican. There’s more common ground than you’d think between Republicans and Democrats in the House, the aide added, on matters from infrastructure to immigration. “Everyone agrees the immigration system is broken and that the US needs immigrant workers.”
The wild card, though, is Trump, the aide said: “I’ve given up trying to predict what he might do next.”
In a cinematic climax, Pelosi took her oath of office surrounded by all of the children in the chamber, calling the House to order “on behalf of America’s children.”